After two last-minute cancellations due to waves of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2021, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in Delhi last week, committing to more cooperation with India on trade, defence, combating climate change and cyber security. But it was a visit surprisingly short on actual agreements. While an early harvest agreement on trade had to be shelved — the plan was to announce it by Easter (April) this year — Mr. Johnson and Prime Minister Narendra Modi said they have pushed a deadline to complete the full FTA by October-end or Deepavali, with a view to doubling bilateral trade by 2030. It is not clear whether the respective trade delegations are on track for the final agreement, but Mr. Johnson sounded optimistic, with India fast-tracking its FTAs with the UAE and Australia. Of concern to the U.K. is the lifting of Indian tariffs on Scotch whisky, which might make some headway, as India has accepted lower tariffs on Australian wine and the U.K. seems more flexible in increasing visas to Indian professionals. Both Prime Ministers discussed strengthening defence ties and cooperating strategically in the Indo-Pacific. The two leaders also discussed green technology transfers and international climate finance, although India has yet to commit in writing to the Nationally Determined Contributions that Mr. Modi had described at COP26 in Glasgow.
Mr. Johnson did tread lightly on issues that the Modi government is sensitive about, such as Ukraine and human rights violations. He referred to India’s long-standing relationship with Russia, expressing understanding of India’s position, in stark contrast to the visit of his Foreign Minister two weeks ago. He brushed aside a question on human rights concerns in India, despite facing criticism over posing with a bulldozer while inaugurating a factory on the same day the Supreme Court of India was deliberating over the Government’s controversial new policy of using bulldozers to demolish shops and homes. A sub-group is to be set up to study “extremism” inside India and the U.K., which Mr. Johnson suggested would be used to monitor Khalistani groups (as New Delhi desires), but has a broader mandate to counter all groups and individuals “seeking to incite violent extremism and terrorism”. In return, New Delhi chose not to press the point too hard on why economic fugitives (Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi) have still not been extradited. However, while side-stepping irritants in the relationship can increase the prospects for agreements, it cannot replace the actual work and elbow-grease needed to give ties some momentum after years of stasis. Both New Delhi and London must ensure more concerted efforts to bring those agreements to a finale in the near future, to reach their ambitious goals under “Roadmap 2030” agreed to at the last summit in 2021.